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Thoughtful yardening: Make peace with landscape maintenance

It's late July--the big moment when the landscape delivers its biggest and best. It's the moment to drink in and enjoy--if only we humans weren't so busy with certain unlovable maintenance tasks.

Oh-oh, there's the "M" word. If you have a lawn, you've probably taken your mower for a walk or drive at least 14 or 15 times so far with this year. Perhaps, in addition, you thatched, aerated, top-dressed, and more. Have a garden? The to-do list can be long.

Now please don't get upset with the messenger, but there's a potentially delicate question all we "yardeners" should ask ourselves once a year: Why?

The home landscape comes with an undeniable maintenance requirement. You can grit your teeth and grind it out. Or you can make it a more thoughtful practice. Consider the question: What is the meaning of a home landscape? And does it have to be this much work?

Sadly, many of the "purposes" served by common landscape practices are seemingly handed to us by outside forces and have little to do with higher goals. Here are some common examples:

Bowing to the Dictatorship: Some homeowners are quick to point out the regulations imposed by their homeowner's association or town government, particularly when it comes to lawn mowing. Sometimes these landscape dictators even regulate the types and heights of shrubs, the number of trees, the setbacks on lawns and gardens, lighting, pathways, and more. In these circumstances, park any goals or ideas of your own at the garden shed door.

Bowing to the Dictatorship, Part 2: No one says they're landscaping to please the neighbors, but people often say their landscaping should be "in keeping with the neighborhood." In other words, they choose their landscapes based on what they believe they are expected to do. This rationale becomes particularly evident when we start to discuss conversion of lawn areas - often in places where lawn is frustratingly difficult to grow. Lower maintenance features such as rock gardens, wildflower plantings, tall grass, or shredded leaf mulch are sometimes rejected because they "won't fit."

Disappearing Act: People often ask how to increase their privacy with landscaping. "I'd like to shield my deck from the neighbors," says one homeowner. "I can't stand looking at my neighbor's deck," says another. Ask any fence company-many a fence is purchased on the premise that good fences screen out bad views and screen in good ones. We do a lot of landscaping to make each other and our belongings invisible.

Disappearing Act, Part 2: Not unreasonably, we like to hide air conditioners, garbage cans, telephone poles, wires, and the concrete blocks that form the foundations of most homes built since the 1920s. Somehow it became common practice to put tiny shrubs inches from foundations or other landscape objects - where the soil is likely to be fairly awful and growing conditions less than perfect. Plants often fail to deliver the disappearing act.

None of this offers a positive reason to engage in the amount of work and expense that even a small yard requires. The dilemma suggests two big questions:

1. Can you make it less work? You can, but you might have to challenge some orthodoxies or make some tradeoffs. Ask yourself if you are doing things just because they've always been done that way - are you fighting low maintenance natural ground covers such as moss, ferns, and tall grasses rather than inviting them? Can you encourage your own little "forest" and use the shredded leaves as mulch in the fall? Here are two books on how to trade in fussy yards for one that is more casual: "Beautiful No Mow Yards" by Evelyn Hadden, Timber Press 2012, or "The New Low Maintenance Garden" by Koch and Easton, Timber Press 2009.

2. Can you make the work more satisfying and worthwhile? You can if you dedicate your outdoor spaces with good intentions to some higher purpose. For instance, dedicate your yard and yard work to the support of native plants, birds and beneficial insects. Or make your plans for backyard privacy with a gentle touch and calm acceptance that both you and your neighbor need some time alone. (See my article on friendly fences and boundaries at Make your yard a place where people can be friends. Here's a hint: seating is one of the most important elements in a friendly landscape - and there's nothing like a circle to bring people together. Finally, set aside an outdoor place of contemplation where you can make peace with your landscape - the work, the maintenance, the expense, the bugs, and the beauty.



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